North Caucasus Militant Gives Testimony On Russians Fighting For ISIS, But Are They All Guilty?

January 27, 2016
FSB in counter-terrorism operation. Stock photo by Dmitry Korotayev/Kommersant

LIVE UPDATES: The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) claims to have found out the names of dozens of militants from Russia who have gone to fight for ISIS, thanks to the arrest of an informant against one of them, Rashid Yevloyev, Kommersant reports.

Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

The previous issue is here.

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The Non-Hybrid War
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Russian MP Calls Deadly Swine Flu (A Virus) American “Bacteriological War”

Russian communist party politicians may not know much about biology, but they appear to have propaganda covered pretty well.

Vadim Solovyov, a member of parliament in the State Duma, told the Russian press today that the latest deadly swine flu outbreak which has killed at least 50 people in Russia and more than 80 in Ukraine is a case of American “bacteriological war.” Chris Miller reports:

“This wave [of H1N1] came from Ukraine. And I don’t rule out that it was the Americans there who started this situation, launching such a war against our country,” Sovolyov said.

He called on Russia’s intelligence services, the health ministry and the Prosecutor General to investigate whether American agents intentionally spread the virus, as he claimed for years they had done in Cuba from the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

Swine flu is caused by the H1N1 virus, not bacteria as Sovolyov claimed. This is, however, also not the first conspiracy theory about the source of the flu outbreak. As we reported yesterday, Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine have been claiming that the outbreak is the result of an accidental release of the flu from a lab in Kharkiv. While Kharkiv has been heavily affected by the outbreak, it is fairing better than most other regions of Ukraine, though yesterday authorities ordered schools in that city to remain closed.

James Miller
German Foreign Minister Accuses Russia of ‘Interference’ in Domestic Affairs over Claims of Russian Girl’s Rape
Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has made a sharp retort to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov over Russian claims regarding the alleged rape of a Russian immigrant girl which German police deny, Deutsche Welle (DW), Germany’s Russian-language broadcasting station reported.

Steinmeier accused Russia of interfering in Germany’s internal affairs.

Yesterday, January 26, Foreign Minister Lavrov said at a press conference that relatives had confirmed that the 13-year-girl was kidnapped and raped by immigrants. He accused Germany of “patching over reality in domestic political affairs with political correctness,” DW reported.

Russia state media and controlled social media has broadcast hysterical reports in the last week, claiming that a young girl, was kidnapped and raped by Middle Eastern immigrants in the wake of the attacks in Cologne on New Year’s Day.
German police said that while the girl had run away from home, she was returned safely and they found no evidence of harm. But the girl’s aunt gave an interview to a Russian state journalist in Germany, which has led to lurid programs on Russian state TV1 and other channels and media sites.
Steinmeier said there was no justification for exploiting the case “for political propaganda and to interfere in the already complicated domestic German discussion on migrants and to inflame it.”
Kremlin propagandists have delighted in the attacks on women by migrants in Cologne, as it feeds into a narrative of both the Kremlin and the far-right groups it supports in Europe that European liberal governments are unable to cope with terrorism or mass immigration from Syria and other countries at war in the Middle East. The conservative and authoritarian regime Putin offers is the solution, they say.

Steinmeier said that German authorities were doing everything possible to investigate the claims.

“I can only advise Russian authorities to take into account the results of the investigation, DPA quoted Steinmeier as saying.

The German Foreign Ministry was due to provide the Russian ambassador in Berlin with all the necessary information about the case today, Steinmeier added, but provided no details.

Most of the asylum-seekers in Russia now are from Ukraine, driven there by the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbass, and Russian authorities have recently been busy closing camps and pushing them back home. Very few Syrians or others from the Middle East have gained asylum in Russia.

–Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Pavlensky, Artist Who Burned FSB’s Doorway, Sent to Serbsky Institute for Psychiatric Evaluation

Pavlensky, an aktionist artist who stages political performances, is being transferred to the Serbsky Institute, OVD-Info, the police monitoring group, reported, citing a post by his wife, Olga Shalygina, on her Facebook page.

Shalygina said she did not learn this from doctors, but from the mother of a fellow inmate after she made a visit. Pavlensky is to be held for evaluation for 21 days.  She has not been allowed to visit him but has sent him a food package.

In November, Pavlensky set the door of the Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters known as the Lyubanka for the square where it is located, to protest increasing surveillance and persecution in Russia.

He was quickly arrested and charged with “vandalism” motivated by “ideological hatred” and put in a pre-trial investigation cell. The fire lit in the doorway was quickly extinguished.

The Serbsky Institute gained notoriety in the Soviet era as the place where forensic psychiatrists declared dissidents insane, although in many cases they were normal. Abuse of psychiatry has been returning to Russia, as Paul Goble reports in Windows on Eurasia.

Last week Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said opposition activists should be put in psychiatric hospitals and given injections of drugs.

When Pavlensky has been arrested for his artistic stunts in the past, he has either not been taken to a psychiatric hospital or has been declared sane and served jail terms.

In October 2015, he cut off his ear lobe while sitting on the wall of the Serbsky Institute to protest increasing numbers of cases of psychiatric abuse in Russia. That time he was first treated in a regular hospital, then declared sane after evaluation at a psychiatric clinic. A St. Petersburg court twice rejected appeals to incarcerate him.

This time, the outcome is uncertain; he is “between pathology and crime,” his wife commented. 

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

Foreign-Currency Mortgage Holders Block Tverskaya Street in Moscow to Protest Refusal to Reduce Debt

About 300 foreign-currency mortgage holders have blocked Tverskaya-Yamskaya Street in Moscow, Media Zone reports, citing the Facebook page of New Times correspondent Georgy Aleksandrov, who shot some footage of the protest.

2016-01-27 18:34:16

Last week, protesters with such mortgages staged sit-ins at several banks in Moscow, even chaining themselves to the door. 

TV Rain reported on Periscope that police had succeed in pushing the demonstrators to the side of the road. Protesters said the police treated them roughly, and ripped one demonstrator’s jacket. Two people have been detained so far.
They are demanding that their debts be restructured in the same way as people with mortgages denominated in rubles have been allowed to reduce their debt.
Russian officials have refused to move on the issue, although people who took out home loans in foreign currency have the same loss of 30% or more of their savings and salaries as others, and find it difficult or impossible to make payments on their loans.

The protesters said they are seeking a meeting with officials from DeltaKredit to restructure their mortgages but have been rebuffed.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

Detainee with Multiple Injuries While in Custody Dies in St. Petersburg Hospital
A man detained by the police in St. Petersburg has died from traumas while in custody, RFE/RL’s Russian-language service Radio Svoboda reports.
Late on the night of January 26, a 40-year-old man whose name was not provided died at the 3rd City Hospital, after being brought on January 18 from the 44th precinct in Primorsky District. Doctors recorded numerous traumas, including an open skull wound, brain damage, and a broken skull.
Police say that the suspect died of an epileptic attack.
Yevgeny Vyshenkov, deputy editor for the Agency for Journalist Investigations said the police had no reason to apply force to the detainee.  He said he spoke to police and found that the suspect had a past record of thefts and that he was also ill with AIDS, hepatitis and epilepsy.  He commented (translation by The Interpreter):

“Ask the doctors what will happen usually with a person who is simply grabbed by the hand; the maximum would be a bruise. Yet his whole arm was swollen.”

Yury Vdovin, a member of the St. Petersburg Human Rights Council said that while he respected Vyshenkov’s opinion as a “decent person and a former agent,” he doubted whether the suspect could have caused such deadly injuries to himself.

“No matter what diseases he had, it’s still strange that he sustained the traumas not on the street, not at somebody’s house at some drunken party, but at the police station in fact. If we had the ability to have some kind of objective investigation by the prosecutor, I am confident that it should definitely be conducted. Because many police, unfortunately, suffer burn-out at work and they themselves don’t notice how they become brutal.”

The Russian Ebola Project reports that deaths in police custody are all too common and estimate that they occur almost daily. The Daily Dot and Global Voices recently covered the work of Russian Ebola Project which took its name to describe an “epidemic” of such beatings in jails. They reported 197 deaths in custody in 2015.

The Investigative Committee is now conducting a check of the 44th precinct.  As the Investigative Committee has been accused of covering up crimes by police and prosecutors in the past, there is some skepticism that the investigation will be objective.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

Arrested North Caucasus Militant Gives Testimony On Russians Fighting For ISIS, But Are They All Guilty?
The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) claims to have found out the names of dozens of militants from Russia who have gone to fight for ISIS, thanks to the arrest of an informant against one of them, Rashid Yevloyev, Sergei Mashkin of Kommersant reports in an article published January 26.
But his lawyer and human rights groups have questioned whether the FSB has the wrong man; they say Yevloyev, 27, originally from Northern Ossetia, was not in Syria at all, and an informant has given false testimony against him.
Open Russia, the organization founded by businessman and former political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, included Yevloyev in a list of cases of men from the North Caucasus in an article titled “Extremes or Victims of the War on ISIS?,” and provided the account of his father, who believes he is innocent. Past articles both in the Russian original and in faulty English-language translations have given contradictory accounts.
The FSB says that Yevloyev, a graduate of the law department of the Kabardino-Balkaria State University, flew from Krasnodar to Istanbul to receive theological education. Investigators believe that he then traveled to the Syrian city of Haritan where he underwent special training in an ISIS camp for militants called the “Caucasus” camp to be assigned to commit terrorist attacks in Russia. The course had both psychological and physical training as well as lessons on how to handle explosives and poisons.
Investigators say Yevloyev then returned to Istanbul and, fearing persecution there, made his way to Germany where he was arrested by police, and then extradited to Russia on October 1, 2015 where he was accused of having undergone training in terrorist activity (Art. 205.3 of the Russian Criminal Code). The Russian Interior Ministry posted a report of the extradition.
On January 25, Moscow City Court honored the FSB’s request to extend Yevloyev’s arrest until April 30. He is currently being held in Lefortovo Prison. The FSB said the case was particularly complex since it involved a crime alleged to have been committed abroad, so there was a danger of flight and also that he “might make use of his terrorist skills.” According to an investigator, the witnesses are also all abroad.

A source close to the investigation told Kommersant that the person who has given testimony against Yevloyev is a certain “Islambek,” last name not provided, who was said to be a fighter for Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, a jihadist group made up of Arabs active in fighting the Syrian government. It has been designated as a terrorist organization by the US and Canada.

This is the group said to be joined by many Chechens from Russia; it is said to be the main recipient of “green corridor” militants channeled from the North Caucasus to Syria, according to research by Natalya Milashina of Novaya Gazeta cited in an article by The Interpreter’s editor-in-chief Michael Weiss.

Islambek said he himself joined Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar in February 2013 after flying to Istanbul and then making his way to Haritan to a Caucasus Emirate camp commanded by Feyzulla Margoshvili, a fighter from the Pankisi Valley in Georgy who used the name Salakh ash-Shishani. He said there were 1,500 fighters from Russia at the camp, equipped not only with small arms, grenade-launchers, 23-mm anti-aircraft artillery but also the Igla and Strela surface-to-air missile systems.

(This appears to be the source for the FSB’s claim throughout 2014 that there were “1,700” fighters from Russia with ISIS; this was later increased to 2,700.)

Islambek said the fighters lived in multi-story dwellings in groups of 30 to 100, divided up by ethnicity or “profession.” So there were buildings for Dagestanis from the village of Gimri, Azeris, and Crimeans as well as for spetsnaz and explosives experts, said Kommersant.

Yevloyev was said to have adopted the name “Akhmad” and was placed under an instructor in mines and explosives whose name was Habib. Since these fighters were being prepared for diversive actions abroad, they all wore masks so they could not be identified. But Islambek said he caught sight of the face of Yevloyev several times, and then identified him from photographs.
Islambek, who is also under investigation for terrorist activity, said he didn’t take part in combat but only went to get groceries for ISIS at a local market and sometimes stood on guard duty on a river bank near the camp. There, he was severely wounded in the leg, and was forced to return home, where he was arrested.
Yevloyev said he had never been in Syria, but did say he had gone to live in Istanbul in May 2014. He said for the entire time, he was studying the Turkish language at courses provided by an immigrant aid society named Bob Alim. He said he attended courses during the day the entire time he was there, and at night worked as a store clerk. At one point he called his father and learned that an FSB agent named “Alexander” was interested in him; he then called the agent on the telephone and said he had nothing to do with the militant groups. “Alexander” didn’t believe him, however, which was when he decided to flee to Germany, where he was also detained in Hamburg then returned to Russia, Kommersant reported last year.

Yevloyev’s lawyer, Roza Magomedova, said she is convinced of his innocence and is gathering proof that he was not involved in militant groups; she would not provide an interview with Kommersant.

According to Open Russia, Yevloyev’s father, Aslan Yevloyev, an Ingush, is a former policeman from the village of Mayskoye in Prigorodny District of North Ossetia. He believes his son is innocent. He came to Moscow to hire a lawyer, and said Investigator Yastrebov from the FSB’s investigative department would not allow the lawyer to examine the case. Aslan said he is determined not to leave Moscow until the lawyer gains access to the case files.

Aslan said that when his son graduated from law school in 2013, he was unable to find work in his home town so he decided to go to Turkey to study Arabic. Within two weeks, FSB agents were visiting him and claiming his son was fighting in Syria. His father gave the agents his mobile phone number in Istanbul and said the FSB could call him and verify where he was. The agent called his son in his presence, and it seemed they were satisfied.

But a month later, Aslan and his wife were called in for interrogation by the FSB and urged to bring their son home; he was supposedly seen in Syria. The FSB agents said they would find him a job. But if he didn’t return, they would open up a criminal case against him on charges of involvement in terrorist activity.

The agents intimidated the parents, saying a fighter had already recognized him from a photograph and testified that he was fighting with ISIS in Syria. He said he had receipts showing that his son had purchased sheets in Turkey from a small family store and sent them to his parents, but the FSB didn’t want to look at his evidence, they just wanted him to get his son to return home. The Interpreter was unable to find a reliable photograph of Yevloyev.

Aslan believes that informants in the village give information to the FSB that may be untrue. He finds it hard to believe that his son would go to the trouble to purchase sheets in a little store in Istanbul in order to deceive him, while supposedly fighting in Syria. The father noted that there were tensions, as there have been historically, in Prigorodny District between Ingush and Ossetians. He and his family were Ingush, and the FSB agents were Ossetians. He said he had advised his son to seek political asylum in Germany.

An English-language summary of the January 26 Kommersant article by Meduza failed to mention the claims of Yevloyev’s innocence by his lawyer and family, nor to cite his own account.

An English-language version of another Kommersant article on arrested Islamist militants, dated October 15, 2015, claimed that Yevloyev’s parents said he was “about to receive an Islamic education” and “went to a camp in Aleppo, joining others form the South Caucasus for combat training.”

In fact, the original Russian story doesn’t cite the parents, but says “according to Kommersant‘s information” and makes the claim that Yevloyev himself told his parents the story about Islamic education and Aleppo — although Kommersant changed that account in the January 26 article. Kommersant notes in the January 26 article that Yevloyev’s lawyer said he had not given such testimony.

The later Kommersant story also makes no such claim about the parents’ story; in fact, his father has said he believes his son was in Turkey and was innocent.

Another Kommersant story dated October 2 by Nikolai Sergeyev about Yevloyev’s extradition cited his father as saying he wanted to obtain an Islamic education but his family did not have the funds for it, so friends helped him to go to Turkey. Kommersant said his father claimed he stopped answering mobile phone calls after that — although Open Russia described the father as calling his son even in the presence of an FSB agent. In this version of the story, Yevloyev fought against Assad but but after his group suffered their first losses, he fled from the combat zone and made his way to Germany. On that basis, the FSB did not charge him with participation in ISIS, as he left voluntarily, but charged him with obtaining knowledge of explosives with the purpose of committing a terrorist attack in Russia, for which he faces from 15-20 years of prison.

This criminal code article provides for the charges to be dropped if the suspect cooperates with investigators and provides them information about other persons who were trained by terrorist or organized or financed them; this is the option that the informant Islambek was said to avail himself of.

Kommersant said that “in the last 18 months, Russian courts have issued sentences to a dozen graduates of the Caucasus camp.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick